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  • Writer's pictureCharlotte Dujardin

On Defining So-Called “Green” and “Clean” Energy

Written by: Charlotte Dujardin

Edited by: Kyra Odell

What does it mean for energy to be clean? Or for energy to be green? These terms can be seen in policy proposals, environmental and economic reports, or regular news outlets, but we rarely see them being defined. Sometimes used interchangeably, “green” and “clean” energy are often presented to the public as being the optimal solution to climate change. Although it can be appreciated that the world is turning more and more towards “sustainable” energy sources, we need to know how exactly these are defined, and the ethics lying behind those definitions.

As they are often used interchangeably, it can be hard to conceptualize what it means for energy to be clean, or green. Clean energy sources are described as being “carbon-free” energy sources that are efficient and “reduce energy demand” (Leonard, 2014). This refers to any source not dependent on fossil fuels, and therefore does not produce any greenhouse gas. Characteristics of clean energy solutions include “better efficiency, better resource use, better cost effectiveness, better energy security and better design and analysis,” with the “most promising designs appearing to be renewables” (Dincer & Acar, 2015). The resources corresponding to these criteria would enable us to become more efficient without having to cut down on energy consumption while being sustainable in the long term, as they “address global issues without negatively impacting the environment” (Dincer & Acar, 2015). Going further, green energies are often talked about as being a subset of clean energies only including renewables. Nevertheless, it needs to be specified that these definitions often change depending on who is speaking: this is part of the problem, as an unclear definition can lead to misunderstandings. 


In this context, it is interesting to look at the ethics between these words, as green and clean are terms specifically chosen to make us forget about what lies behind. When discussing solutions to climate and energy issues, we need to be aware of the people working and maybe even suffering for these solutions to exist. As the anthropologist Laura Nader wrote in 1981, “the energy problem is not a technological problem,” but very much a ‘social problem’” (Nader, 1981). This refers to the fact that we cannot only see the world as a technological problem to solve by finding the solution that results in the most productivity with the least amount of environmental degradation: rather, we must equally take into account the underlying social issues. 

In that way, is “clean” energy really always that clean? As we have seen, clean energy mainly refers to carbon-free energy, which englobes many sources such as solar, wind, hydro and geothermal, and could even include nuclear power. Indeed, nuclear power is carbon-free, and could be considered as a “crucial part of the answer to global climate change” (Nunn & Ivanov, 2017). However, this does not take into account nuclear waste and possible accidents, which are inherently part of nuclear energy’s history and reality. This demonstrates how discourses around “clean” energy can mislead the public, and the necessity of thinking critically about the definitions and presuppositions we are presented with. 

Furthermore, even when considering less controversial sources of clean energy such as renewables, the question of their actual cleanliness remains relevant. Electricity coming from renewables remains one of the best solutions to “bring down emissions,” yet carries the equal potential to intensify “existing environmental and social problems,” as renewables “require many more critical materials compared to their fossil fuel-based counterparts” (Sembiring, 2020). These social and environmental issues mainly lie in land transformation for the mining of these materials, which degrade and pollute agricultural land as well as drinking water supplies, mainly affecting Global South countries (Sembiring, 2020). These social and environmental issues are rarely mentioned when discussing the future of renewables and the solution to climate change they represent, and need to be taken into account when defining so-called “clean” technologies. 


Therefore, the definition of “clean” technologies mainly refers to the fact that they are low-carbon, spotlighting their efficiency and economic viability. In doing so, however, the ethical issues lying behind these technologies are rarely taken into account. This is why we need to be careful with the words we use: to avoid falling into green-washing and forgetting that any current energy solution is associated with social and environmental costs, even though they are presented as “clean” or “green”. As the “link between increasing consumption and environmental stresses is well recognised,” the focus cannot only remain on finding “cleaner” energy solutions, but also on reducing consumption. The goal should not be only to find “energy efficiency that [reduces] energy demand,” but also simply to reduce the demand (Leonard, 2014) . 



Dincer, I., & Acar, C. (2015). A review on Clean Energy Solutions for better sustainability. International Journal of Energy Research, 39(5), 585–606. 

Leonard, W. A. (2014). Clean Is the New Green: Clean Energy Finance and Deployment Through Green Banks. Yale Law & Policy Review, 33(1), 197–229.


Nader, L. (1981). Barriers to thinking new about energy. Physics Today, 34(2), 9–104. 


Nunn, S., & Ivanov, I. (2017). NUCLEAR ENERGY: Addressing climate change will require the safe and secure use of nuclear energy. In Pathways to Cooperation: A Menu of Potential U.S.-Russian Cooperative Projects in the Nuclear Sphere (pp. 10–13). Nuclear Threat Initiative.


Sembiring, M. (2020). Decarbonisation on a Finite Planet: A Preliminary Assessment of Environmental and Social Impacts. S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.


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